In Melanie Rae Thon’s new collection, In This Light, published this month (May 24) by Graywolf Press, the short story, “Tu B’Shvat: for the drowned and the saved” is a new wrinkle in Thon’s oeuvre.
We are no longer in the world of street kids, runaways, addicts, the rural poor or prostitutes. Instead, the narrator is an ordinary forty-four-year old woman with a husband and two children, who will prepare Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish holiday of the New Year of the Trees—a celebration commemorated by eating specific fruits and drinking wine while reciting blessings to bring human beings and the world closer to spiritual perfection.
A different protagonist to be sure, but we are still in the style of Thon, with her liberal use of free association to capture the movements of the mind, her voices from the dead mingling with the living, the self projected everywhere, and a reconfiguring of the traditional story structure. When free association is a key style technique in a story, it opens up immense possibilities, including surprise and a collage of interesting imagery.
In “Tu B’Shvat,” you find a beautiful young girl who drowns in the community pool, the narrator’s dead mother, the holocaust, the narrator’s piano-playing daughter, relatives who died in the camps, a dead deer, her father who died in the shower of her childhood home and the beautiful young girl’s missionary brother living in Hermosillo. David Shields writes in Reality Hunger, “It’s not the story. It’s just this breathtaking world—that’s the point” and that seems to perfectly capture “Tu B’ Shvat.”
The story opens with the young girl in the shower at the community pool. “The girl was radiant. I saw her in the shower naked. Glistening with water, she seemed lit from inside, a woman illuminated. I tried not to stare, then simply surrendered. Alone, I tried not to look in the mirror, tried not to hear my mother: The old are more naked than the young. Before the camp, she had never seen an old woman naked.”
In her first paragraph, Thon sets out her major threads—the girl, mother, the camps, light, nakedness, surrendering—all of which will appear and disappear throughout this 41 page story in interesting and unexpected ways. By the sixth paragraph, we know we’re not in a traditional story structure.
Here’s the movement I’m talking about:“The long, green-eyed girl gave us hope, a vision of a human being perfected.My mother weighed seventy-two pounds the last time I dared to weigh her. I fed her pureed peas, strained carrots, tiny spoonfuls of mashed potatoes. I was always afraid. I thought her thin bones might snap as I bathed her.”
Again, we have the coupling of the young girl with the narrator’s mother. And Thon does something more: she subtly teaches us how to read the story—nonlinearly—that quick leap from the girl to her mother. As a result, the pacing will not be a high suspense, forward driving motion to the end. The barest of plot lines exists and for me that’s a relief because we get to meander, carried along by intimacy, deep in the narrator’s mind.
At times the story reads as a meditation on death, a poem to life, a eulogy to all those who died in the concentration camps, a homage to God, to the Jewish tradition of Tu B’Shvat, to a mother’s love for her children. Eleven pages in, Helen, the young swimmer reappears, seemingly floating at the bottom of the pool. In a more traditional story, this would be the climax. “I swam over three times before I thought to go down, before I felt her as I’d felt the birds, before my mother said, She needs you.”
But this is Thon’s world, and despite Helen’s drowning, there are other threads to follow. The narrator goes home, but not alone. “I smelled Helen Kinderman in me—soot of adrenaline, burn of chlorine—we shared this: one scorched body.” And the smell sends the narrator to the memory of her father, who died of a heart attack and lay crumpled in the shower for hours in her childhood home. And on to the narrator’s relatives who died in the concentration camps—a long list of names, with the refrain, How can this be? repeated ten times, enough for the reader to touch the familiar stone of a bewildered mind as the narrator imagines—(invoking a first person omniscient point of view, or maybe a splintering of the self, fragmented by empathy)-- into Helen’s family. “The police found Helen’s father first, Peter Kinderman, a pharmacist downtown, and when he saw them, he was afraid, but not for Helen—he never thought, It’s her, she’s gone, my beautiful daughter.”
Toward the end, the narrator’s mother consoles: “Now it is time to forgive. Now it is time to surrender. Love is fiercer than death. I set myself as a seal upon your heart. Trust me.” At her dead mother’s urging, the narrator begins to prepare Tu B’Shvat, and her daughter returns home and plays the piano and touches God. “Imagine the song you would sing if you loved silt, weeds, rocks rippling you.”
I won’t give the ending away, but the story lands on an unexpected place, though still tied to the overall themes of life and death, of family and love, still deep in the narrator’s mind.
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